If you like outdoor activities, Johnson City in eastern Tennessee is the ideal spot to spend some time. It lies in a valley in the southern Appalachian Mountains, 209 km (130 miles) northeast of the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s not often thought of as a holiday destination, but this is a mistake, as it has a lot going for it.
Johnson City has some beautiful parks where you can hike and take part in sports, a lake for water activities, museums, and a vibrant downtown filled with restaurants, bars, and shops. Close to the city is the Nolichucky River, with opportunities to fish, and rapids where you can have fun whitewater rafting. The city has a little notoriety associated with it. It was once known as ‘Little Chicago’ as it was thought that Al Capone, the famous American gangster, came to the city during the Depression to deal in his illegal alcohol business. There is a speakeasy in the city, giving you an insight into what life was like then.
The weather is generally good in Johnson City. Winters can be cold, but they are short, while summers are very warm and even hot. Hopefully, I’ve sparked your interest in Johnson City. If so, read on. I have picked 20 things to do in the city that will appeal to different tastes.
- Johnson City, Tennessee
- 20 Things To Do In Johnson City
- 1- Discover The History Of Johnson City At Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site
- 2- Have A Picnic At Founders Park
- 3- Visit The Reece Museum
- 4- Enjoy The Outdoors At Buffalo Mountain Park
- 5- Sip A Craft Beer At A Brewery
- 6- Learn About The Railroad At Carter Railroad Museum
- 7- Explore Downtown Johnson City
- 8- Enjoy the Facilities At Winged Deer Park
- 9- Get Involved At The Hands-On! Discovery Site At Gray Fossil Site
- 10- Enjoy Water Activities At Boone Lake
- 11- Take The Tweetsie Trail
- 12- Camp By The Nolichucky River
- 13- Take A Ghost Tour
- 14- Hike To Laurel Falls
- 15- Have A Family Day Out At Paradise Acres
- 16- Enjoy Live Music At Down Home
- 17- Catch A Comedy Show At The Wallace Theatre
- 18- Enjoy A Cocktail At The Windsor Speakeasy
- 19- Enjoy The Trails At The Tannery Knobs Mountain Bike Park
- 20- Watch The Sunset At The Skytop Rooftop Bar
- 20 Things To Do In Johnson City
Johnson City, Tennessee
20 Things To Do In Johnson City
1- Discover The History Of Johnson City At Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site
The Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site is a must for those interested in the history of Johnson City.
The site dates to 1784, when Colonel John Tipton purchased the land and built his home there together with another ten buildings, including a smokehouse, a pigsty, and a loom house.
It was later purchased by the Haynes family, and finally, in 1945, it was bought by the Tennessee Historical Commission, which restored the buildings and opened a museum.
The museum houses documents, photos, and antiques dating back to the 18th century.
You can also see archaeological remnants from the Woodland Indians, who were a prehistoric tribe that lived in Tennessee.
A library and archives give you further information about the history of the site, and outside you will find a beautiful garden, a nature trail, a cemetery, and a limestone cave.
The Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site is at 2620 South Roan St., Johnson City, TN 37601
2- Have A Picnic At Founders Park
Founders Park is in the centre of downtown Johnson City and is a lovely place to relax and take a gentle stroll.
It was originally built to handle stormwater but is now used by locals and tourists alike who want a break from the hustle and bustle of the city.
There is an easy walking trail in the park that is lined with sculptures and other art, making for an interesting walk with good photo opportunities.
Among other exhibits, there is an unusual depiction of a human head made from steel nails and a mosaic in the form of a human sundial.
Weekends are the best time to go to Founders Park if you enjoy live music.
There is an amphitheatre in the park where the bands play, and you can dance the night away, keeping yourself going with the food offered at the various food trucks.
Founders Park is at 225 Commerce St., Johnson City, TN 37604.
3- Visit The Reece Museum
The Reece Museum has been accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, and it is easy to see why.
It is superbly looked after and has an excellent display of 22,000 artefacts telling the story of the Appalachian region, which is in the central and southern parts of the Appalachian Mountains.
In the museum, among other exhibits, you can see an exhibition of Appalachian artwork from the 20th century and clothing from the 1880s that belonged to the Haynes family.
The museum also hosts temporary exhibitions. One of the best it has showcased was ‘The Divine Comedy’ by Salvador Dali.
In the early 1950s, Dali created 100 illustrations based on the book of the same name by the Italian writer Dante.
In the book, Dante portrays his visions of hell, purgatory, and heaven, and Dali captured his words perfectly, especially with the frightening images of hell.
It is free to get into the Reece Museum and it is open on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4.30 p.m.
The Reece Museum is at 363 Stout Drive, Johnson City, TN 37614.
4- Enjoy The Outdoors At Buffalo Mountain Park
If you enjoy hiking, head to Buffalo Mountain Park, as it has a variety of hikes to suit all levels of fitness but aren’t suitable for young children because most of the trails have steep sections.
One of the best trails is the White Rock Loop, which covers 8 km (5 miles) and takes you to White Rock, where you will have panoramic views of the countryside.
You should also see some beautiful wildflowers, and the trail is a good place to go birdwatching.
The White Rock Loop is considered moderate, and is suitable for dogs, but they must be kept on a leash.
The park covers 293 ha (725 acres) and as well as the hiking trails, nature programmes are on offer.
You can spend the day there, as you are allowed to picnic in the designated picnic areas.
Buffalo Mountain Park is at 570 Highridge Rd. Johnson City, TN 37604.
5- Sip A Craft Beer At A Brewery
If you enjoy a glass of beer or two, there are a few breweries in Johnson City that offer a good evening out.
The longest-running microbrewery in the city is Johnson Brewing Company, which produces cask ales, hard ciders, and beers.
Some of their brews are a little different but worth trying, such as Strawberry Smoothie Extra Pale Ale and the seasonal Pumpkin Spice Coffee Blonde.
The brewery is family-friendly, and it has a large outside space where you can take the children.
They sell snacks and sodas for the kids to keep them occupied while you enjoy your beer.
Another brewery worth visiting is the Yee-Haw Brewing Company, which is family-friendly as well and has a large outdoor area with fire pits.
As well as beer, they serve wine and spirits, if you are hungry, White Duck Taco is on the premises serving, wait for it, tacos!
Johnson City Brewing Company is at 257 E Main Street, Johnson City, TN 37601.
Yee-Haw Brewing Company is at 126 Buffalo Street, Johnson City, TN 37604.
6- Learn About The Railroad At Carter Railroad Museum
Both children and adults will love this museum, which showcases railroad memorabilia and is dedicated to George L. Carter, an American entrepreneur who made his fortune during the coal boom.
Carter designed the Clinchfield Railroad in the late 19th century.
In addition to the memorabilia and the artefacts, there are three large model railroad operating layouts on different scales and are operated by volunteers.
There is a room for children called the Little Engineers Room, where they can play with toy trains, including Thomas the Tank engine, and construct their own railroad. It is suitable for three to eight-year-olds.
On the last Saturday of every month, there is a Heritage Day that showcases a particular railroad or a special railroad type. There are exhibits and operating model trains.
The museum is open on Saturdays from 10 am to 3 pm. It is moving from East Tennessee State University, so check their website for the new address.
7- Explore Downtown Johnson City
Downtown Johnson City is the place to go for restaurants, cafes, bars and shops.
There is an eclectic mix of cuisine on offer in addition to southern cuisine, including the Italian Black Olive and the Main Street Pizza Company.
Ole’s Guacamoles serves Mexican food and Red Meze, Turkish and Greek.
Mid-city Grill serves a variety of burgers as well as a good range of vegan food. If you want to go to a sophisticated bar, try the Wayward Lounge.
Downtown Johnson City is known for its sculptures in King Commons Park, Founders Park, and various other spots in the area.
Be sure to see the Quilted Owl near King Commons Park, which is made from foam and covered in stained glass.
Different events are held throughout the year in downtown Johnson City, including a Christmas parade and restaurant week.
Support the locals on Saturdays by visiting the farmer’s market where you will be able to buy fresh produce and flowers and listen to live bands.
Johnson City Market is at 105 W Main Street, Johnson City, TN 37604.
8- Enjoy the Facilities At Winged Deer Park
Winged Deer Park is one of the most beautiful parks in Johnson City, with so much to do you could easily spend the day and bring a picnic for lunch.
The park has both paved hiking trails and trails for mountain bikes.
There are two volleyball courts, an 18-hole disc golf course, batting cages and a couple of playgrounds with opportunities for your children to play softball and soccer.
Winged Deer Park is on the shores of Boone Lake, so you can swim or hire a boat.
It is a good place for bird watching, and you might catch sight of flycatchers, thrushes, cuckoos, and warblers.
Don’t leave without visiting the James H. Quillen Historical Tree Arboretum, which has more than a dozen varieties of trees, and the Robert Young Cabin, which is one of Johnson City’s oldest buildings.
Winged Deer Park is at 4137 Bristol Highway, Johnson City, TN 37601.
9- Get Involved At The Hands-On! Discovery Site At Gray Fossil Site
The Hands-On! Discovery Centre is at the Gray Fossil Site, where excavations are still taking place. It is an interactive science centre that is fun for children and adults alike.
There is a wide range of interactive exhibits on offer.
You can make music with the PVC pipe organ, connect a maze of circuits to a gadget you want to spin or light up, floss an enormous set of teeth, build your own sail car, and much more.
There is an area specially set up for children aged three and under.
In the Archaeology Hall, you will be able to see artefacts excavated in the region, and there is a viewing window where you can see recent findings from the Gray Fossil Site.
If you go outside, you will find the area where excavations are still taking place, and there is a viewing deck where you can watch the archaeologists at work.
The centre is open on Tuesdays to Saturdays from 10 am to 5 pm and Sundays from 1 pm to 5 pm.
10- Enjoy Water Activities At Boone Lake
If you enjoy water activities, head to Boone Lake, where you can rent a boat for the day.
Take a picnic with you and relax in the calm waters, or, alternatively, you can fish.
You might catch catfish, trout, crappie, striped bass, or largemouth and smallmouth bass.
The lake also offers kayaking, canoeing, wakeboarding, tubing, water skiing, and paddleboarding, or you can just have a swim if the weather is good.
There is a special area reserved for swimming above the dam.
If you enjoy walking, you can take a stroll around the coastline of the lake, but there aren’t any trails close to the lake.
11- Take The Tweetsie Trail
The Tweetsie Trail is a reasonably easy trail where you can walk, cycle or skate for 15.44 km (9.6 miles) from downtown Johnson City to downtown Elizabethtown, starting at a disused stretch of railroad and following the old line.
You will pass by forests, rock formations, cow farms, horses, and creeks, and there are benches where you can take a rest.
Along the way, there are 20 information boards that tell you about the history of the railroad in the area, the birds to be seen, and the trees that are endemic to the region.
12- Camp By The Nolichucky River
The Nolichucky River passes through the town of Erwin, 24 km (15 miles) south of Johnson City.
The river is in a gorge with swimming holes and rapids.
It is a great place to go whitewater rafting, tubing and kayaking, with plenty of guided tours on offer.
If you enjoy water sports, you may want to camp nearby so that you can take full advantage of the river facilities.
There are plenty of campgrounds close by that are open all year.
The best time to come here if you want warm water for water activities is between June and October.
13- Take A Ghost Tour
This company offers a ghost tour in Jackson City that takes place after dark and is lantern-led to ensure that you have a truly spooky time.
You will go to the John Sevier Centre, which is famous for a fire that killed 16 people and injured another 50.
It is said that it is haunted by the ghosts of the dead. Another stop is Johnson City’s TV station, which is also said to be haunted.
In downtown Johnson City, you will visit the Little Chicago Ghost Walk, which takes you back to early 20th-century life and the illegal practice of bootlegging.
You will find out all about the underground tunnels Al Capone used for his illegal alcohol business.
The company also offers holiday packages where they provide you with accommodation and take you on tours of haunted historic houses, mansions, museums and caves.
14- Hike To Laurel Falls
Laurel Falls is one of the most beautiful waterfalls close to Johnson City.
It is in the Cherokee National Forest, and it takes just 30 minutes to get there by car.
The trail to get to the waterfall is 3.86 metres (2.4 miles) long, and you then can go to the summit of Cove Mountain.
The trail is challenging as you have to climb, but it does offer beautiful surroundings with forests, creeks, and rhododendrons to be seen.
Once you get to the waterfall, you will realise that the difficult hike was worth it. Laurel Falls cascades 16.76 metres (55 feet) and is worth photographing.
You can swim in one of the swimming pools at the waterfall, but nowhere else, as it can be dangerous.
15- Have A Family Day Out At Paradise Acres
If you have children, they will love Paradise Acres for its variety of activities to suit children of all ages.
The 18-hole golf course is a little different, as it glows in the dark.
The ball cannon gives you 10 shots at three targets, and if you hit them all, you get free ice cream.
There is an outdoor laser tag, hayrides, and the hay ground, which is a giant hay bale pyramid with slides and a bouncy house next to it.
During the summer and autumn, there is a sunflower maze and, in the autumn, a pumpkin patch where you can buy your pumpkin for Halloween.
Paradise Acres is at 4946 N Roan Street, Johnson City, TN 37615.
16- Enjoy Live Music At Down Home
If you want to enjoy a night of music, head to Down Home in downtown Johnson City.
Established in 1976, they feature different genres of music and sometimes host plays, political rallies, poetry competitions, and parties.
You can rent a room for up to 150 people with catering and musical entertainment.
Down Home serves beer and hard cider, and you can order Mexican food such as enchiladas and burritos.
Down Home is at 300 W Main Street, Johnson City, TN 37604.
17- Catch A Comedy Show At The Wallace Theatre
Every Saturday, from 7 pm until 10 pm, the Wallace Theatre puts on a comedy show.
It could be an open mic night, improvisation, stand-up, or comedy with music. From time to time, they host film festivals.
You could go and see the improvisation nights again and again and never see the same show, as the players don’t have any scripts and make everything up, working off each other and the reactions of the audience.
The stand-up comedy shows can be a little risqué, so they are for adults only.
You are allowed to bring your own drinks, but not food, as they have a snack bar.
The Wallace Theatre is at 215 E. Main Street, Johnson City, TN 37604.
18- Enjoy A Cocktail At The Windsor Speakeasy
Speakeasies were illicit establishments that sold alcohol during the Depression when alcohol was forbidden.
The bars were hidden, and you had to go through secret doors to get in.
The Windsor Speakeasy attempts to recreate this concept and does an excellent job.
You go into an unmarked building that looks like a small convenience store, and then the host takes you behind a secret door to the bar.
The door is disguised as a cigarette vending machine.
In the speakeasy, you can get both classic and unusual cocktails.
Snacks are also on offer.
It’s first come, first serve because they don’t take reservations, so try and get there earlier rather than later.
The Windsor Speakeasy is open from Wednesdays to Saturdays from 5 pm at 220 W. Market Street, Johnson City, TN 37604.
19- Enjoy The Trails At The Tannery Knobs Mountain Bike Park
The Tannery Knobs Mountain Bike Park covers more than 0.16 square metres (40 acres). It’s only a few minutes drive from downtown Johnson City.
The trails go through some beautiful forests and feature off-road biking trails and a paved track. There are different trails to suit different ages and experience levels. Whichever trail you choose, you will be rewarded with beautiful views. If you don’t like biking, you can hike or run on the trails.
The park is open from 7 am until 9 pm during the summer and from 8 am until 7 pm in the winter.
The Tannery Knobs Mountain Bike Park is at 18 Tannery Knob, Johnson City, TN 37601.
20- Watch The Sunset At The Skytop Rooftop Bar
The Skytop Rooftop Bar is at the Watauga Brewing Company, which is on three stories.
On the ground floor is the brewery, where you can get beer and food.
On the first floor is the restaurant, which has a larger food menu.
The Skytop Bar is on the top floor and has lovely views of the city.
On the rooftop, as well as beer, you can enjoy wine, cocktails, and brew bites such as the dip trio and jalapeno grit tots.
The Watauga Red Sangria is a good choice if you are going for a cocktail.
It is made from raspberry liqueur, cranberry juice, orange juice, and Black Magic spiced rum and is topped with red wine and soda.
The Skytop Rooftop Bar is at 142 W, Market Street, Johnson City, TN 37604.
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